Injecting Empathy Into Marketing

June 9, 2020

Last year, I wrote a blog exploring whether advertising is dead – the answer was a resounding no, but creating compelling and relevant content was key for optimising engagement. Fast-forward to 2020, and as the human race has had to adapt to a global pandemic, the question has once again resurfaced. And I’m now asking my team the question of whether we should be marketing our products and services to our customers. Knowing that many of our partners will be thinking along the same lines, I thought I’d revisit the topic in today’s context, and see how we can successfully engage audiences in this ‘next’ normal.

Firstly, let’s look at how our behaviour has changed. With retail stores, restaurants, physical social interactions, and public events all put to a halt, our world suddenly became a much smaller physical place. And so we turned to the online world, followed the news a lot closer than perhaps we normally would, and with that, we turned to new ways to communicate (remember when the Houseparty app drove 2 million downloads in 1 week?).

We consumed digital content in huge numbers, with streaming services seeing ~50% increases in traffic, Google searches on learning tools up by 100% from the same period last year, and TikTok suddenly becoming the mainstream platform to tap into creativity. At the same time, businesses are facing huge economic pressures to stay afloat, and marketing products, that have lost their purpose without the pre-pandemic world context, is suddenly unimportant.

But the reality is, we need marketing. Without it, the economy will struggle even further. We just need to change our approach. So how can you continue to engage your audience in this uncertainty? Let’s take a look at 3 topics that I’ve seen work for brands recently – and also a few cases of where it’s gone a little bit wrong!


Revivalism is all about invoking nostalgia and a focus on the familiar, to help provide that emotional comfort blanket as we feel a loss of control with what’s happening around us. This can reveal itself in lots of different ways, both consumer-led and brand-led. Fashion brands capitalise on it constantly by releasing vintage-inspired collaboration or re-issuing old patterns, and what about those ‘Classics’ channels that only show black and white movies?

Right now though, the resurgence is upon us. For instance, have you found yourself watching re-runs of your favorite shows instead of starting something new, or joining online watch parties like the Goonies virtual reunion (the absolute best film ever)? Yes, there’s a practical side to this with a lack of new content available, but it’s also our emotional side clinging to what we know. With ‘best-of’s’ of the Superbowl, Olympics, and festivals (did you know that never-shown-before sets from Glastonbury will be released to mark what would have been the legendary UK event’s 50th anniversary?), not only are we reminding ourselves of joyful times, but it brings together a sense of community as they are shared moments we can all talk about and place in context of pre-COVID life.

And it’s not just consumers being fed this content. We are actively making these choices – for example in April Spotify saw a 54% increase in listeners making nostalgic-themed playlists, as well as an uptick in the share of listening to music from the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, and in the same month the #MeAt20 trend took off on social media, allowing cross-generational commentary on how our fashion, hair, and make-up has changed over the years.

So it’s clear that nostalgia can pull on your heart strings and be a good ‘in’ to keep your brand relevant. But whether that’s the route you want to go down or you have another compelling content approach, the question at the moment is how do you stand out without showing insensitivity to the current crisis?

Story telling

In any great marketing campaign, there should always be a clear strategy that links what you have to offer, to what your customers want. However, as channels have become amplified, that clarity has got a bit muddled, and we’ve ended up in an unbelievability crisis. There’s so much talk, that consumers have lost faith in who to trust – after analysing over 126,000 stories tweeted by 3 million users over more than 10 years, an MIT study concluded that “the truth simply cannot compete with hoax and rumor.”

How then do we break this cycle and create bonds with customers at a human level? Ultimately, you need to have strong values as a brand and stay true to them – and be prepared to show your work behind the scenes. At this moment of time consumers want to see the blood, sweat and tears that go into keeping a business afloat. They want to see passion, the people behind the social media account or the email. Have you seen the number of Instagram lives and stories go up in the last 3 months? It’s because those savvy enough have realised that unlocking that ‘behind the scenes’ mentality is breeding engagement.

But it’s not just about talking the talk. You have to be able to prove that your actions match. For example, Nike launched their ‘You can’t stop sport’ campaign to motivate people through the pandemic, and supported it with free workouts and guidance from experts to help their customers reach their fitness goals. Separate from the campaign, Nike has also manufactured and donated shoes and personal protective equipment for healthcare workers on the front lines of the pandemic. Yes, this has been publicised, but in a way that the story is not about them.

However, there is always a risk with opening up your brand. You have to stay aware of accountability and that you can’t be a ‘one size fits all’ for every audience – so sensitivity to different people’s situations is required. At the start of COVID-19, some brands tried to use the humble hype to be a direct route to purchasing, meaning their communications essentially came across as ‘We feel sorry for you and therefore buy this product.’ There’s been a disconnect between a need for whatever that product is and the actual consumer sentiment and it goes back to needing to have the deeper rooted values in place before producing content.

And hey – even celebrities are facing backlash for not thinking before they speak, with Ellen Degeneres quickly put in her place for comparing self-quarantining in her multimillion-dollar mansion to “being in jail”.

Make that pivot

Storytelling and revivalism are great ways to connect with your audience on a deeper level, but they’ll only get you so far. If you really want to thrive, not just survive, then you have to be prepared to disrupt your industry. There’s different ways this can be done depending on how brave you feel!

Let’s look at those in the food and beverage industry first, who whilst forced to stop operations due to COVID-19 maximised on their cult following to create even wider audiences by revealing their trade secrets and letting you in on how to make your favorite meal at home.

Most notably, McDonald’s released a recipe card giving instructions on how to create your own sausage and egg McMuffin at home. Given the fast-food chain’s breakfast sandwich is one of its best-selling items on the menu, the marketing team were rewarded with thousands of social media posts as existing, and new, fans whipped up their own version to satisfy the cravings. It might seem counterintuitive to release the recipes that allow you to stand out, but in effect it changed the competitive landscape by making it less about the food and more about what the brand as a whole can offer.

In England, the Asian restaurant chain Wagamama’s did the same – but this was for their legendary Katsu curry. Filming a home video on a wobbly iPhone, the restaurant chain’s executive chef Steve Mangleshot shared a step-by-step tutorial on Instagram because he was missing being in the professional kitchen. That human insight, paired with something educational and helpful at a time when people were missing their favourite meals, meant he ticked all the boxes we talked about – and he had over 20,000 comments, so it resonated well.

For some other industries, the choices to pivot were even more necessary, for example the changing events world. With crowds of people no longer the norm, the default way to engage with consumers face-to-face and to add in that human, physical element was suddenly completely taken away.

The natural reaction was to do everything as planned, but as a webinar instead. In reality, simply re-creating an event virtually won’t cut it. Instead professionals need to look at what they can add in to keep audiences engaged in front of a small screen, with probably 20+ distractions all around them at any time.

There’s no right answer, as with every event it should be tailored to the purpose and audience, but think about bringing in AR, VR, personal backdrops, polls, synchronised mail drops and more to still create that feeling of connection. And you know what I appreciate the most? When things go a little bit wrong! Seeing a speaker’s family member accidentally walking through the shot, or an unflattering face freeze as your internet takes a moment, helps keep it down-to-earth.

And then you have the movers and shakers who want to make bigger disruptions in their industry, such as Crayola producing their own makeup line, or Taco Bell taking over a hotel for a weekend in Palm Springs. Yes, sometimes it can just be a gimmick, but if you’ve done the research it can stick. Look at Apple suddenly being part of the finance world with their own credit card – which now we’re used to it, kind of just makes sense.

The moral of this blog is… be bold, be adaptable, and make the change when you need to.

If you made it this far, thank you for having a better attention span than me! And all there is left to say is, if you want to be relevant with your marketing activities in this new world then be flexible, be quick to pivot, think about how to approach new situations in a creative way, and don’t forget your human side.

Stacey Sujeebun
Marketing Communications Director - North America and Global Research and Development

Stacey Sujeebun is the Marketing Communications Director at Konica Minolta for North America and Global Research and Development. On joining the business almost 10 years ago, she was faced with the challenge of repositioning the organisation’s reputation to rival that of well-established IT companies, through brand extension. Following a lengthy transformative brand development programme, the Workplace Hub category was unveiled to the world’s press at the ‘Spotlight’ event in Berlin in March 2017. The brand and activation went on to win 13 awards globally. Stacey is responsible for consolidating Konica Minolta’s IT Services reputation by harnessing the organisation’s IT division, All Covered, with the goal of paving the way for Konica Minolta’s future IoT / AI business – currently under exploration by Research and Development. She has been named as a “2019 Young Influencer” within the Imaging Industry by The Cannata Report, NJBIZ’s ‘2020 40 Under 40,’ and as a ‘2021 Woman Influencer’ by The Cannata Report. Before joining Konica Minolta, Stacey worked as a consultant within brand communication and media agencies in London, providing advice on rebranding, repositioning and stakeholder engagement initiatives. She is also a CIM qualified marketing professional, with an MSc in Social Anthropology from University College London (UCL).